You have to feel your heart wrench a little watching Once Upon a Time Wonderland. Since the series was originally conceived as a winter-hiatus replacement for the original OUAT and then became a primetime series, ABC had to have had high hopes that it would catch the same audience and ignite the same passionate fan base as its parent show. But despite dealing in many of the same tropes of OUAT Classic Spice (disapproving moms, snooty evil queens, sappy star-crossed lovers), Wonderland's failure to shoehorn in recognizable references and characters, not to mention its over-reliance on lackluster CGI, have put it on the chopping block, and now I'm feeling a tinge of melancholy whenever I tune in to see the show's extremely talented cast try to act over their garish costumes. This episode, in particular, was quite good, and featured two of my favorite Wonderland elements to date: the Knave and the Red Queen’s backstory, and the darker side of fantasy.
So: Turns out that just like OUAT's Regina, Anastasia had an over-controlling, literally strait-laced mom (like did you see that corset?! nuts!) who dreamed of her daughter marrying into royalty. Or, failing that, at least into wealth. Realizing that her kid was about to go hopping into another realm with Will Scarlet, she sneered at her not to come back without a bucket, because the only reason she’d be allowed back into her mother’s home would be to empty her chamberpot! With that highly inappropriate image, the lovers embarked on two weeks of being homeless in Wonderland, eating fish bones and foraging in the underbrush.
In the present day (I guess?! Or Victorian times?! Or also Storybrooke times?!), the Red Queen had tapped Alice as an unlikely partner to retrieve the Magical MacGuffin Dust that would protect her from Jafar’s dark magic. Alice was pretty leery of being besties with a woman who almost killed her lover and who surrounds herself with mute fops, but agreed. (P.S. does David Bowie know about this weird tribute make up they all wear? Is that trademarked? Should he send ABC a cease-and-desist notice?)
The Queen took her to the edge of a huge CGI chasm and told her that only the pure of heart could leap over it. I'm taking that to mean a figurative leap of faith, because after all they’re in a green room, but regardless, Alice strolled out three feet into thin air and then fell approximately 300 miles.
Luckily she landed in about three inches of ash, so she was fine. Hahahaha no she’d be beyond dead if any sort of physics were being acknowledged in this show, but no matter, because a fate worse than death awaited her: a creepy child self in a cavern.
It should legit be illegal to paint dark circles under a kid’s eyes. It is ALWAYS TOO DISTURBING! While Once Upon a Time in Wonderland fails at being magical, transcendent, entrancing, or full of childlike wonder, it knows how to do disturbing and unsettling. And this was seriously a fantastically unsettling moment, not just because the little kid was creepy, but because she summoned the Red Queen down into the abyss with them and started DEMANDING THAT ALICE KILL HER! I mean, I was enjoying myself so much at this point that I wasn’t sure what show I was watching.
What was especially successful here was the suggestion that the former child devil self was actually just in Alice’s head: OH, so maybe she actually IS insane and maybe a lobotomy and lifelong imprisonment shouldn’t have been swept aside so cavalierly as legitimate options? Alice, egged on by her little creepy self, eventually took a swing at the Red Queen to scare her a little, but ultimately revealed she was no killer. At which point baby Alice’s dress magically became clean and she dissolved into a pile of cocaine. Or whatever this was. Magic Dust, right.
So to return to the backstory with the Red Queen and the Knave, they were living in a wagon (LOL) and scrounging for food when they heard there was going to be a royal ball, so they forged an invitation and stole some evening clothes and crashed it, giving ingenue Anastasia the chance to meet a real silver fox.
Although they were summarily booted out of the palace, Anastasia decided to return to filch those royal jewels before they went back to Fairy Tale Land, so she wouldn’t have to rely on waste-managing her mother’s bedroom for their living. Although the two were so strapped for cash that they had subsisted on bread crusts for two weeks, Anastasia put together an AMAZING ensemble for the jewelry theft she was planning. I mean bespoke gloves, a jaunty neck tie, little boots—how the heck did she get this stuff?! And then she made Will Scarlet/the Knave French-braid her hair, I guess? It's very hard to French braid your own hair, so he had to have helped her out.
Obviously instead of stealing the jewels she ran into the aging Don Juan Red King who offered to make her his Queen! Will, who’d been waiting outside for her to throw down the jewels, was instead greeted by the announcement that she was the new Queen of Wonderland.
And she’d taken down his French braid and let another man craft her a new updo. Very rude. How long do you think Will was waiting down there? Hours? To contract a royal marriage it might have been days. Anyway, ta-da: That’s why they hate each other. But to be fair, why didn’t Will marry her when he had the chance? She left her home to camp with him full-time, and as far as I know they weren’t even engaged. If he loved her then he should have put a ring on it.
Anyway, obviously the Red Queen did not honor her promises once she was out of the void; she stole the magic glitter and flitted away. Alice had kept a little herself, and so she was able to use it to see Jafar’s palace and set out in the right direction. But—BIG EMOTIONAL REVEAL—the Red Queen DID use the magic to turn Will back into a real boy. Okay, she still loves him, nice. Meanwhile, Cyrus the genie had finally finished welding metal with a chicken bone and had escaped his giant birdcage, so he and Alice have nothing between them now except for 300 miles of CGI jungle. Hurrah!
All in all, this was a pleasant, simple episode that added a few layers of emotional complexity to one of the series’ most cartoonish characters. The Red Queen definitely needed some characteristics beyond "evil" and "sexy," and we got them. I do wish that this episode had been front-loaded to air earlier in the season—it would've been nice to see more of the Knave and the Red Queen’s backstory in the pilot, and the classically styled Alice and the general creepiness would've been a lot more engaging than the marshmallow swamp and terrible animated caterpillar and all that foolishness we endured in the first two episodes.
I think it's likely that Wonderland will continue to unspool its truncated tale, if only because of the continued success of its mother franchise. And after this episode I’m a lot less bored by that prospect. I want to find out whether Red and Knave ever make up. I want to know where Silver Fox went. (Body of Evidence-style murder by SEX?!) And it'll be a tinier bit easier to root for Cyrus when he’s going to be doing something other than sitting around. Hurrah!
... Have you ever fallen in love with a burglar who broke into your house?
... Have you ever spent two weeks foraging in the woods with your true love?
... Why can’t Cyrus do any kind of magic for himself?
... Does Alice’s reluctance to wish for Cyrus to be by her side make less and less sense as both of them continue to veer toward mortal peril? (a.k.a., Can the "consequences" of making a big wish really be worse than dying while crossing a rift in the Earth's crust?)
... Pretty obvious, right, that the guy in the cage next to Cyrus was the Sultan who fathered Jafar and that Jafar wants him to make Jafar his official heir?
... Should ABC try other OUAT franchises? Do you think it's likely they will, given the dismal performance of Wonderland?
AIRED ON 4/3/2014
Season 1 : Episode 13